Retroactive Continuity: Lovecraft Country

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Sometimes we choose to separate the author from the work; sometimes we choose not to. And sometimes, we don’t have the option.

The latter is really the case with the work of H.P. Lovecraft. He is notorious for his virulent, vicious racism, and like all racism his arises from a combination of needing an Other in order to define an Us, and fear of that Other, which is why an Us seems necessary in the first place. His fiction, meanwhile, finds horror in the alien, the unfamiliar, and the new; his most famous work begins with the depiction of human life as a “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity.” His prose describes a universe of infinite complexity and difference, a universe full of people and things which do not follow the norms with which he is familiar or accord with what he expects, a universe in which there are an infinitude of ways of being other than those of a pathologically frightened little Anglophile nerd, and in response to those visions, he curls up into a tiny ball and wishes not to have to see it anymore. His stories are rife with aristocratic white New England men, scions of wealthy families and dilettante amateur academics, who get a glimpse of a hint of the notion that their privileged existence is not the universal norm, and shatter into gibbering, helpless piles of purple prose.

There just isn’t any way to separate these two facts: he pioneered the literature of the terror of the unknown, and he was jaw-droppingly racist. His horror is, ultimately, the horror of being forced to acknowledge that not everyone is just like you. That’s what weird horror is–it’s horror about invaders from beyond the “normal” world, about discovering the world isn’t “normal” at all. And you know how we feel about “normal” in these parts.

This is, very clearly–indeed, heavy-handedly–what Matt Ruff is addressing with Lovecraft Country. The premise of the book is straightforward: a black family in the 1950s get tangled in the affairs of aristocrat white New England men, scions of wealthy families and dilettante amateur academics, and find themselves being offered in magical blood rituals intended to summon forth the powers of creation, sent on interplanetary errands by ghosts, used as pawns in a war between sorcerers, and so on. Throughout, however, the greatest threats to their well-being remain what was, to Lovecraft, part of the “normal” world: cops, hospitals that refuse black patients even in emergencies, lynch mobs and racist neighbors. Lovecraftian protagonists–most notably, an amateur academic who is the young and ambitious heir to a line of New England aristocrats with a sordid past full of ill-advised “natural philosophy”–are their enemies, while Lovecraftian menaces such as a nameless lurking darkness in the woods, the ghost of a Hecate-worshiping sorcerer whose home one purchases cheap, and an alien tentacle monster end up helping them, usually by killing or terrorizing the white people who would harm them.

But despite that heavy-handedness–indeed, in part because of it–there are two ways to read this book.

On the one hand, it’s a clever reclamation of weird fiction, by reading the phrase “fear of the Other” differently. Instead of the fear engendered by the Other, Lovecraft Country looks at the fear felt by the Other–that is, to the fear that comes from being othered, of living in a society built for the benefit of people that fear and hate you. The Other can be beautiful, as Hippolyta’s experience with the “observatory” that opens into other worlds demonstrates. The Other can destroy that which needs destroying, as when the presence in the woods kills or drives off the racist cops. And by contrast, to be part of Us can be corrupting, as Ruby’s growing addiction to transforming into Hillary shows. Indeed, the only time an othered figure is depicted as actually harmful to one of the protagonists is when the “devil doll” hunts Horace–and that doll is a racist caricature created and animated by white men. It is, in other words, not a manifestation of the Other but of the fear of the Other, the same fear that drives all the racism the protagonists face and serves as the root of the weird horror genre.

But on the other hand, Matt Ruff is white, and he’s arrogating to himself the right to tell, not a story with black people in it, but the story of being black in America. It’s to his credit that he at least recognizes that it’s a horror story, but it’s still not his story. He is still a white person speaking for, and over, black people, and from his comments when questioned about that, it’s clear that he genuinely doesn’t see any problem with that.

Which is the problem, because claiming ownership of everything in sight is what whiteness is. It’s absorbing local gods and spitting them back out as saints. It’s capitalism and nationalism and colonialism. It’s manifest destiny and lebensraum. It’s genocide and slavery. Whiteness as we know it is inseparable from hegemony and fragility, a toxic combination of the power to tilt the playing field and an inability to tolerate any questioning of whether the playing field is flat. Ruff is, it seems, oblivious to the possibility that it might be wrong to set out to tell the genre-redefining story of someone else, and offended by anyone suggesting that it is wrong.

But the book is pretty good, is the thing. Which means we have a choice: to read this as a pretty good book that recontextualizes Lovecraftian horror by contrasting it with the experience of being black in America, or to read it as an act of appropriation by a white author who decides to tell the horror story of being black.

Or, as I’ve tried to do here, we can try to do both at once, and see how it shakes out.

Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): As a kid, I used to watch you (Spellbound)
  • Latest Milestone: N/A (I just restructured the milestones)
  • Next Milestone: $150/mo (only $47 away!): Tagging system for NA09 entries

Announcing Jenny’s Inn

Social distancing already sucks and it’s barely started.

That’s why I set up Jenny’s Inn, a private Discord server specifically to counteract the mental effects of social distancing. It’s a safe, friendly place where people of good will can gather to socialize, and have whatever level of conversation they desire; text, audio, or full video.

I am specifically setting aside a space for people to organize workalongs—video chats where you just quietly work without talking, if you want to feel like people are around but don’t want to interact or be distracted.

I’m also setting up a “convention” space specifically for geeky conversations. Creative friends who are losing income due to con cancelations are particularly welcome to share links to your work/crowdfunding/tip jar/etc, and even stream home versions of your con panels.

Other topic-specific spaces include channels for the queer, kinky, and poly communities, though those will each be available only to users who affirm they are a member of the community in question and agree to additional rules, including total confidentiality.

I’ll also be holding occasional video chats to put to use my training in anxiety management and crisis counseling, should anyone need that.

We can get through this together! Please contact me and I’ll send you an invite link.

Oh yeah, the Lord of the Ring (In Brightest Day?)

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It’s February 6, 1999. Britney Spears still tops the charts; Monica, Brandy, and the Backstreet Boys also chart. At the box office, Payback opens at number one. In the news: on the 4th, New York City is outraged by the murder of an unarmed black immigrant by four cops, and yes, I double-checked this was the news for 1999, not 2019; King Hussein II of Jordan dies tomorrow.

Not much is going on, which is pretty apt for an episode with very little bearing on much of anything else. It’s an origin story for a character who will appear all of twice in Justice League, and only speak once. It’s an introduction of the DCAU to the Green Lantern mythos, but very little will ever actually be done with that mythos. What we see here is basically what we get: they’re space cops who forcibly recruit anyone they want and claim jurisdiction over the entire universe, enforcing laws of rather dubious origin, presumably the self-titled Guardians of the Universe.

I’m not exactly a fan, is what I’m saying. (Except Mogo. Mogo is one of my favorite characters in comics.)

It’s clear what this episode is going for as far as the Green Lantern of Sector 2814 himself is concerned. I refer to him by title because he appears to be a fusion of Kyle Rayner and Hal Jordan in much the same way that the Flash in “Speed Demons” was a hybrid of several versions of that character, and in a sense what they did with Batman. Batman is not a legacy character–or at least, he isn’t yet. He has always been Bruce Wayne; but he has been around across so many different eras, changing and adapting to fit them, that it is possible to create a “best of” character, which is essentially what Batman: The Animated Series did.

With the Flash and Green Lantern, on the other hand, you have multiple characters who have used the name, all with similar powers but different personalities and backstories. So the DCAU Flash can be at once Barry Allen and Wally West, with elements of both, and the DCAU Green Lantern can be at once Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner–a choice which makes particular sense in the late 1990s in a setting that has not involved Green Lanterns before.

Rewind back to The Death of Superman. In that event series, Hal Jordan’s home town was destroyed by Mongul, leading him to follow the traditional four stages of grief (90s comic book style): supervillainy, mass murder, attempted destruction of spacetime, and death. Kyle Rayner acquired a ring made from the shattered remnants of Hal Jordan’s, and was for a while the only Green Lantern left. This is obviously unusable for the DCAU, in part because it’s bullshit, but mostly because it’s too dark for kids and doesn’t work in a setting where the Green Lanterns were only just introduced. Jordan’s origin story–Green Lantern Abin Sur crashlanding on Earth and passing on his ring–is much better for an audience unfamiliar with the Green Lantern mythology, that being exactly what it was designed for when it was first told in the 1959 reboot of Green Lantern to be more science fiction-flavored.

However, the show’s Green Lantern has to be Kyle Rayner because, in 1999, he is the Green Lantern. More importantly, while Jordan’s origin story is a better fit for the show, Rayner’s background is more appropriate: he’s a struggling comics artist. The Green Lantern ring may be powered by courage, but it’s controlled by imagination, and the two characters being hybridized to create the DCAU Kyle Rayner exemplify those two aspects: Jordan the fearless test pilot, Rayner the creative artist. His constructs in the comic have frequently been among the most creative, including a safe big enough to hold a sun, anime-style power armor, and a giant version of himself playing a giant pinball machine with his opponent as the ball. There is so much potential for fights involving him to get complex and creative, and the flexibility of animation as a medium makes it the perfect place to showcase his imagination.

So of course we get absolutely none of that. This is really where the episode falls down; it introduces a major “cosmic” concept from the comics, an iconic villain, a character known for creative use of his powers, and then spends most of the episode on a by-the-numbers slugfest.

And it’s not just this episode, though this episode is the clearest example. Much like The New Batman Adventures in its dying days–which, being the last season of BTAS, comprised most of its days–Superman: The Animated Series is clearly running out of steam. There are still a couple of flashes of creativity to come, but by and large it’s settled into something of a rut.

We know how to fix this, in a sense. Batman Beyond is exactly what Batman needed to become interesting again, a fresh start with new characters and a renewed sense of where and what it is. But what is beyond Superman? The whole point of the character is that he’s essentially limitless, capable of rising to just about any challenge. He can fly at the speed of light and see through walls; how could anything be beyond him?

That is the question that will occupy us in the final days of this show. But, as we’ll find, it’s one that we’ve already answered.

Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): As a kid, I used to watch you (Spellbound)
  • Latest Milestone: N/A (I just restructured the milestones)
  • Next Milestone: $150/mo (only $47 away!): Tagging system for NA09 entries

Goodbye YouTube

So if you follow my Patreon, as many of you do, you already know this. If not, it’s the first you’re hearing it: last month, I posted my final videos to Patreon.

It was a difficult decision but I believe the right one: I am quitting making videos. The backlog I have (about 40 videos already shared, plus some panels I still need to edit) are the last videos I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future.

Thank you to everyone who watched them. I hope you’ll stick around for the essays.